library 2.0: How do you share?

Libraries are supposed to be all about sharing. Granted there is the line between public library sharing of community resources and academic libraries that often have more archival purposes in their missions. That said, are we good sharers? Could we share better? This question comes out of a lot of things I’ve been reading recently.

1. The USA Today article about Wikipedia and the distinction it draws, sharply, between the authority of print and the authority of the collaborative web. However, I think there is another distinction being drawn about the immediacy and responsiveness of the collaborative web versus the responsiveness of print. If an article in print was found to contain inaccuracies, how quickly would they be fixed? I’m aware that there is a more rigorous fact-checking process for much of what winds up in what we consider authoritative print, but not always. Wikipedia is also often chock full of citations. I won’t go to the mat for Wikipedia as the end-all be-all of reference materials, but I will say that the idea that we are all responsible for what is real, authoritative, and true is a powerful idea, and not one that I think is heavily subscribed to by information gatekeepers.

2. The “library as box” mentality. The idea of outreach is to get the library into places in the community that may not otherwise make use of the library. It also serves to get librarians out of the library. Many librarians are “out” in their community but many are not. At my old public library job, there was a clear benefit to having reference librarians who had lived in town for decades. This was much more important than my technology knowledge, though the two complemented each other strongly. I know it’s a crazy idea but I’d think that all big libraries should have librarians who don’t work in the library at all. Bookmobile drivers and dog and pony show people, but also people who staff information desks at community events, hang out with seniors at the senior center and kids at the battered women’s shelter. The web forced us as a profession talk about “outside the box” service, but shouldn’t we have been thinking about that all along? My job takes me to many libraries and technology centers and I find that an important part of my job is the bardic role of telling librarians and computer users about other librarians and computer users, sharing their stories. One of the most important parts of grappling with frustrations and setbacks is realizing that it’s not just you, that you’re not alone. Part of the divide in the digital divide is people not knowing anyone or any place where they can go get answers to tech questions, or even if their questions are easy or hard.

3. Content creation. The whole 2.0 thing in general seems to be about using the hive mind and the affordances of technology to synthesize newer, better and more useful systems that then become available for everyone. Libraries have historically been places to receive information but with some rare exceptions, less places to contribute information. Blogs and wikis and tag clouds, all the stuff we prattle on about are good for reading or reading about, but they reallly shine through use. I had the pleasure of having a brief but intense talk with Andrea and Kevin Dames at Internet Librarian. Kevin turned some of this talk and thoughts of his own into an idea: Multimedia Information Centers where people can “mashup” the library, both creating content for themselves but also through incentives, contests and enthusiasm, roll that content right back into promoting the library. I like the ouroboros ideas where the investment that you put in comes back out to you on the other side.

So? I’m not sure. I think one downside to the blog blowup is that sometimes it’s easy to put an idea out there online and think “Good, I got the ball rolling, now someone can pick that up and run with it.” This is especially hard if we’re in jobs or situations that don’t allow us the freedom to explore the ideas we have or, in some cases, if our ideas don’t jibe with our institutions learning and sharing styles. I like being a philosophizing librarian, but I also think it’s important to meet the people who your ideas trickle down to, see how and why they repurpose it, or how and why it works or doesn’t work. Our patrons share their hopes and dreams and foibles and ambitions with us all the time, it may be time to give back, become more interactive and collaborative, make that door swing both ways. This is what Library 2.0 means to me.

The Librarian and the Lifeguard – Social Access to Resources

I’ve started swimming at the local pool because I’m out of shape and swimming is about the best exercise that doesn’t leave me gasping for breath because of my asthma. I’ve done it all of two days now, so I’m not bragging, just had an observation. There are a few lifeguards at our pool. When I was a kid at the pool the lifeguards were hunky older kids. Now that I’m an adult, I’m somewhat amused to find that the lifeguards are children. The pool has a long set of complex rules to follow, most of which I understand and some of which I don’t.

I found myself on one end of the pool yesterday contemplating a swim to the other side when I remembered one of the rules: “no swimming in the diving area.” I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I was in the diving area, I was certainly in the roped off section of the pool where the diving board is, but that’s half the pool. I’m not sure how you get out of the diving area without swimming, so maybe they meant “no lap swimming.” I’m not sure if that’s one of those rules that’s only for kids, in the same way all the kids have to get out of the pool once an hour so the lifeguards can have a break, but the adults don’t have to. I considered asking one of the lifeguards, but she was up on a big tall chair and I felt like it might be sort of a stupid question. I stayed on the side of the pool for a while before I decided to forge ahead, figuring someone would stop me if I were wrong. Can you see where I am going with this?

I had one of those “Aha!” moments where I realized that my feelings of confusion probably mirrored how people feel in the library all the time. All I wanted to do was enjoy the community resource, but I was having a hard time understanding the norms, and was trying to avoid attracting attention from the powers-that-be. There are a lot of rules, some of which are very important and some of which are less important. Some of the rules are severely enforced, some of them are occasionally enforced, some of them are never enforced. They are usually enforced by the librarian, who gets his/her authority from places unknown [to most people who have a loose idea that they work for the town/city]. Rule enforcement can be a gentle reminder or a harsh reprimand. The librarian can often be inaccessible in various ways [refdesk as barrier, computer monitor as barrier, lack of smile as barrier] and patrons often have the feeling that the librarian has “real work” to do that does not involve helping them.

I think we’ve made great strides, as a professsion, removing people’s physical and technical access barriers from library services. I think more and more people, when asked about their childhood libraries, are going to have positive stories of story times, community programs, and great YA book, instead of stern admonishments and shushing. I also think that the more comfortable we feel within our institutions and with our communities, we may start to forget what our library looks like to someone seeing it for the very first time. That person may be from a different city, state, or culture, and may have a different understanding, or a total lack of understanding, of our library norms. Access also means social access.